Hey, Kids, Leave Them Teachers Alone | Ed Clarke

I am generally a fan of the Robinson Crusoe approach to school management. As a child of the prep school system – and, now, a prep school master myself – it is in the blood. In prep schools’ twentieth century heyday, the headmaster was as likely to be found tarmacking the drive as teaching Latin verse composition. When a classroom at my own alma mater suffered fire damage on a Friday, several members of staff patched it up with a spot of DIY over the weekend and it was business as usual by Monday. Indeed, as the head – whose reign, extraordinarily, spanned the fifty-one years from 1948-99 – once contemptuously remarked, “we’ve never much gone in for facilities here”.

I deplore the technological arms race that has embroiled schools in expensive and ineffectual investments. I despair at the insistence on employing hi-tech wizardry for its own sake, rather than where it is of genuine use, shortening pupils’ attention spans and turning potentially self-reliant children into tech-addicted zombies. It is my ardent belief that charisma and the ability to explain things clearly – coupled with firm discipline and strong subject knowledge – lie at the heart of the best teaching. It should be possible to display these qualities with nothing more than a shed and a blackboard.

Nevertheless, the excruciating coverage of the debates surrounding sending certain children back to school in June have betrayed a supreme lack of understanding on the part of the media – and many others besides – as to how schools actually work and the complexity of their operation.

I have not the faintest idea whether it is safe to return to schools from a coronavirus perspective. So polarised and varied has been its reporting, I am not sure I have ever felt more ill-informed about a critical issue of the day. I have found it baffling, however, that so little attention has been paid to the practicalities.

Given that only Year Six pupils are to return, any teacher whose own children are of other ages is most likely unavailable owing to the lack of suitable childcare. The continued lockdown rules out anyone pregnant, symptomatic of the virus, over a certain age or at risk in any other fashion. The government regulations, meanwhile, restricts these Year Six children’s education to groups of no more than fifteen, which never interact and are confined to a single area of the school site with only one teacher. This puts pay to almost any kind of subject-specific work altogether. Nobody has the requisite expertise to teach the whole curriculum, while restricted movement prevents the use of science labs, music rooms, art rooms, DT workshops, libraries, or anywhere else for that matter. What quality of teaching can be reasonably expected under these constraints?

Similarly depressing has been the widespread perception that over the past few months, as a teacher, I must have done nothing beyond lounging in the sun with a piña colada, a socially distanced punkahwallah and a massive palm leaf. My school has virtually carried on as normal, with a full timetable, interactive lessons online and all the usual trappings of academic provision. Hundreds, if not thousands of man-hours over the Easter holidays were given over to preparing this virtual curriculum (a process that will be repeated this week, during half-term, for the rest of the summer’s teaching). In a standard day, I will teach four to five classes and field over a hundred enquiries and requests for marking. It is a significant challenge for everybody, especially those with young children of their own to look after.

Mercifully, our particular institution has chosen to continue with the online teaching currently in place, with Year Six children returning to school only in the afternoons for various beneficial activities. It is utterly galling, however, to contemplate a system which will undoubtedly provide a less satisfactory service for that year group while simultaneously depriving the other years of the staff needed for specific subject provision.

Schools have been led a merry dance by the DfE, whose guidance seemingly has changed with every phase of the moon. It is a miracle that so many educational establishments have provided as well as they have for the children in their charge. I would be comfortable with any efforts by the government and the media to ensure that every school is fulfilling its academic duties appropriately and to the greatest extent that is practical. The peculiar fixation, however, on shoehorning a handful of children into school buildings has done pupils no favours and served only to cause chaos for those trying to make the best of an impossible situation.

We have no idea whether the current home schooling measures will persist beyond the end of term or indeed be reintroduced in due course if there is a second wave of the virus. It would be of far greater benefit for us to maintain and improve upon the structures we have already built than risk the quality of our current teaching for the sake of appearances.

Ed Clarke is Head of Classics at Highfield School, Hampshire, as well as the author of Clarke’s Latin and Variatio: A Scholarship Latin Course, IAPS Classics Adviser, exam setter and co-chair of the Classics consultation committee with ISEB and former editor of the SATIPS Classics Broadsheet. He has written for The Spectator, the TES, The Independent,Quinquennium and the Journal of Classics Teaching. He campaigns for traditional, knowledge-rich education and tweets at @ClarkesLatin.

Photo by Mobility International USA on Flickr/Unsplash

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